The province's education minister says there is no grey area when it comes to school attendance, and all students are obligated to show up to school every day, regardless of any directive to the contrary issued by their school boards.
As of Monday, students in Grades 9,10 and 11 in red zones were required to return to classrooms full-time, after months of alternating between going to class and learning from home.
But several English school boards are not following the government's instructions, citing concerns over the health of their staff and students.
"They will have to come back to school every day," Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said Wednesday. "This is, in fact, mandatory. It doesn't depend on the school boards, or the service centres or private schools. Each kid has the right to go to school everyday."
Roberge sent a letter to the boards on Tuesday, reiterating they must follow the government's decree and have all students learning in class every day of the week.
Russel Copeman, executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association, says it isn't that simple.
Last fall, the province gave high schools two options for students in Grades 10 and 11: schools could either keep students within the same class bubble all day or alternate between in-person and online learning.
Copeman said it was impossible for some schools to keep a stable classroom bubble so many have been using a hybrid learning model since last August.
"Some school boards will be able to bring back in-person learning 100 per cent in secondary 4 and 5 very quickly," said Copeman.
"Other boards that have made different arrangements, with the approval of the ministry of education as far back as August, are finding it much more challenging to change all of that."
Copeman said this is especially true because some schools planned for a hybrid model when they were hiring staff and planning curriculums for the year last fall.
This is the case for six high schools within the English Montreal School Board. In a statement Wednesday, the board announced the six schools that had been following a hybrid model since the beginning of the school year will keep doing so.
As for the rest of EMSB students, those in Grade 9 returned to classrooms full-time earlier this week and the rest will be returning on April 6.
In a statement earlier this week, the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board announced it would preserve the hybrid learning model "until further notice", citing concerns about Health Minister Christian Dubé's claim the province had entered a third wave of COVID-19.
The Lester B. Pearson School Board on the other hand sent Grade 9 students back full-time this week. With pedagogical days and the Easter holiday coming up, it decided to bring back Grade 10 and 11 students starting next Wednesday.
Balancing public health concerns
Students at some high schools staged protests this week, voicing concerns for their health and that of their families and teachers.
Hundreds of students at Centennial Regional High School in Greenfield Park held a walkout Tuesday afternoon, calling on the government to allow them to return to a hybrid learning model. All students at the school went back full-time this week.
"If we can't go out and go to a restaurant then why can we go in a school with 1,000 kids — how is that safe?" said Katerina Papadakis, the Grade 11 student who organized the walkout.
"I obviously really don't like online [learning], I'd rather everything go back to normal, but I'd also rather keep my family and my friends safe."
Roberge addressed those students Wednesday, saying he understands their concerns but that the decision to send them back was not made lightly.
"I can understand that some parents, some teachers, some students, they have some fears, they have some anxieties. I think it's normal," said Roberge, who explained that his ministry made the decision after discussions with specialists and public health experts.
But it isn't just school officials who have questioned the government's decision. Maude Laberge, a professor at Université Laval and a researcher in population health, feels the full return to classrooms comes much too soon given the current COVID-19 situation in the province.
"There are clearly places that are more at risk of having spread of the virus. I'm thinking of schools predominantly," said Laberge.
"We know a lot of cases are happening in schools and we're just increasing the risk of having to close down schools and classes."
Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province's public health director, said it was a matter of weighing out the long-term consequences.
"There are kids that are going to fail the year, there are kids with mental health issues actually, and public health is not only infectious disease, that's also those impacts," Arruda said Tuesday.
As of Monday, there was a total of 1,351 classes shut down across the province because of COVID-19. There have been 532 suspected cases of coronavirus variants detected in Quebec schools since March 12.